Success story: Legislative candidate came to St. Paul 10 years ago homeless — but with high hopes

There’s a tendency to group all pols into one, unattractive lump. Lost in the lumpings are the compelling backgrounds many politicians do have.

Few have so refreshing and hopeful a story as Rena Moran, a St. Paul DFLer who is running to replace Cy Thao in District 65A, a district that includes a diverse population, many problems and striking views of the state Capitol.

Every story about the 50-year-old Moran must include the fact that she arrived in the Twin Cities from Chicago 10 years ago with high hopes, a college degree, four sons — and homeless.

“I was looking for a stable environment for my children,” she said. “Minnesota came to mind because I always heard it was a family friendly place.”

But she had no home, no money. She moved her family into Mary’s Place, the Sharing and Caring Hands homeless shelter, and stayed there for four months.

Rena Moran

Rena Moran

The stay allowed her to get her feet on the ground, but it also allowed her to get a clearer view of Minnesota.

She quickly picked up on a stereotype that she hadn’t heard when leaving Chicago. The stereotype is that crime problems in Minneapolis and St. Paul can be traced to the black migration from such places as Chicago and Gary, Ind. The other huge stereotype is that the only reason people of color move to Minnesota is to cash in on welfare benefits.

“I’d hear, ‘You’re black, you have four sons, you’re from Chicago and you want to find a home?’ Forget it.’ “

But there was another group of people at Sharing and Caring Hands, who did give Moran and her children the family-friendly welcome that had enticed Moran to make the move in the first place.

Countless volunteers were to be found at Mary’s Place willing to give Moran the sort of support needed to find her way to a job and a home. State financial assistance was also a step to stability and a home. First, she moved her family into an apartment in the Rondo area of St. Paul and then, four years ago, she was able to purchase a home, not far from the Rondo area library at Dale and University. It was the home, and neighborhood issues, that turned her into a political activist.

In starting petitions for such things as paving the street in front of her home, Moran got to know her neighbors and build bridges to white and Hmong families in her neighborhood. Those bridges led to her upset of the DFL’s endorsed candidate, Jeremiah Ellis, in the August primary. Moran now faces Republican Paul Holmgren, who twice lost to Thao, picking up only 20 percent of the vote in each of those losses.

John Harrington

John Harrington

Moran and former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington, the DFLer who is running in Senate District 67, are heavily favored to win in the DFL stronghold and become the first African-American legislators from St. Paul. (They would replace Thao and Mee Moua, the first — and only — Hmong legislators. Neither sought re-election this time.)

Given the long-established black community in Rondo, this “first” business is stunning to Moran.

“It is the 21st Century,” she said.

Moran attributes her victory over Ellis, who also is African-American, to broad support with the Hmong community, who make up roughly 30 percent of her district’s population. African-Americans, she said, make up another 30 percent, and whites another 30 percent.

“Regardless of age, color, gender or any other circumstances, the issues in this district are the same,” Moran said. “Jobs. Education. Safe communities. If all goes well and I’m fortunate enough to win, my job will be to aggressively work to bring those issues to the Capitol.”

There is one other issue that’s central to the district: the impact the light rail line will have on the community.

These days, when Moran is not working at her job with Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota or door-knocking or being a mom, she likes to sit on the University Avenue side of the Rondo library, look out the window and muse about what light rail will mean to her neighborhood.

There are great fears about the line.

Older residents still remember, with pain and anger, the way that I-94 split, and virtually destroyed, the Rondo neighborhood.

Others fear that the line will result in gentrification, which will lead to higher home values that will tax current residents out of their housing.

“People don’t want to have to move,” Moran said. “We love it here.”

The light rail does also carry hope, though.

“It will create an economic base for our community,” Moran said. “The streetscape is going to beautiful. It will create jobs.”

The key will be to find that balance point, she said, and that will mean that political and other neighborhood leaders will have to work closely together to give voice to a community that doesn’t have much traditional clout.

Moran sees herself as having one other major chore between now and Election Day. That’s creating some excitement around the governor’s race, specifically for DFLer Mark Dayton.

“I don’t see much enthusiasm for the election at all,” she said. “I think it’s because people are struggling so hard. They’re trying to hold on to their houses. They’re trying to find jobs. But we need the sort of enthusiasm [for the election] that we had in 2008. I think it’s that critical.”

So much serious business.

Yet, once in a while, Moran allows herself to sit back and absorb all that’s happened to her in the last decade.

“My kids are doing well, I love my home and my community,” she said, emotionally. “And here I am, running for the Legislature. Sometimes I can’t believe it.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 09/16/2010 - 12:02 pm.

    Brava to you, Rena!

  2. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 09/16/2010 - 07:20 pm.

    Although I voted for Jeremiah Ellis I’m pleased that Rena won. Jeremiah is a young, up and coming politician and he has many chances ahead of him.
    What I like about Rena is that she is truly a grass-roots candidate. And gutsy.

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